Are you persuaded by the case for an office intranet but frustrated by the lack of support from your IT department? Are you bamboozled by talk of LANs and WANs when you Google ‘create an intranet’? Is an intranet something you’ve been considering for a while, but it all seems too complicated and so it’s ended up in the too hard basket? If this sounds like you, then help is at hand!
In this post, we look at how to set up an intranet from a completely non-technical perspective. You’ll be surprised at just how easy it is for even the average person to create a professional, fully functioning intranet without the need for a college degree in computing or the support of a team of IT professionals!
First though, we define what an intranet website is before looking at the benefits of creating an office intranet. We then take a look at the different types of intranet out there, including extranets and portals.
Finally, we examine the pros and cons of the company network server option versus that of a custom-built intranet or a cloud-based hosting service.
The aim of this post is to provide you with enough information to make an informed choice about the best option for your business.
What Is An Intranet?
In simple terms, an intranet is a private online network that is only accessible to internal staff or a specially selected audience. An intranet website is a central repository for all the key information and tools that staff need to get the job done. From document management systems and file sharing through to automated processes, news pages and blogs, corporate calendars and collaboration tools, the intranet offers all these essential features in one platform with a single login.
Here’s our succinct and easy-to-understand definition of an intranet:
Created using internet software, an intranet is a private, internal communications platform which contains a range of features that make the daily work of staff more efficient and effective.
What Are The Benefits Of An Intranet?
If you are reading this article, then the chances are that you are already thinking about creating a company intranet and are familiar with the benefits on offer. It’s worthwhile though quickly reminding ourselves of the undoubted advantages which include the following:
- increased workforce productivity
- streamlined business processes
- enhanced team integration and collaboration
- ease of communication
- open all hours, 24/7 access enabling more flexible working arrangements
- improved rates of employee engagement across the business.
Simply put, a company intranet will add value to your business by helping staff members to be more productive as well as efficient and effective.
So, now that we’ve made the business case for a company intranet let’s look at the different types of intranet and how businesses are using them.
Types of Intranet Software
You’ve probably come across the terms intranet, extranet, and portal and wondered what the differences are. The short answer is that they are all types of intranet but are deployed in different situations and for specific purposes. We’ve already looked in detail at the definition of an intranet so let’s find out more about the other two options.
Definition Of An Extranet
An extranet is also a closed private communications network, but the difference is that it’s accessible to selected external parties such as customers, clients, or suppliers. The extranet enables these external parties to more easily and efficiently communicate, collaborate and share information directly with a business.
Types Of Extranet
So, in what situations do businesses deploy an extranet? Here are some examples of how companies have used extranet software to support their operations:
- Universities and colleges have utilized extranet software for the payment of fees and sharing of information with students and parents.
- Manufacturing companies have used extranets to enhance communication, collaboration, and the flow of information with suppliers. The extranet helps to streamline the supply chain resulting in cost reductions and enhanced operations.
- Graphic design businesses, accountants or law firms are good examples of companies that need to share information backwards and forwards with clients and customers regularly. These types of businesses have made extensive use of extranet software as it saves valuable time and resources, especially when compared to more traditional emails or phone calls.
Definition Of A Portal
A portal is a type of window or gateway which enables intranets or extranets to connect and integrate with enterprise systems or apps, including CRM software or human resources applications.
The great advantage of using a portal is that these tools come together in a single platform with just one sign-on. Users utilize the same email address and password to seamlessly access all apps. Staff members will no longer need to remember another password or have multiple screens open at the same time. It’s super convenient and makes for more efficient working.
Examples Of Portal Software
The single-sign-on feature alongside the opportunity to access and integrate multiple systems and apps makes portal software a popular option for many businesses. In addition, users can customize the apps on the portal allowing for a personalized experience
tailored to their needs. Here are some real-life examples of industries that are using portal software:
- Insurance companies have used portal software to allow customers to manage their accounts, check up on purchased products and services, as well as utilizing integrated features for policy payments and renewals.
- Real estate companies are regular users of portal software. They have utilized the technology so that users can customize and personalize their experience with location preferences and key search criteria. Every time that user then logs on, they do not have to re-enter their preferences. Instead, they are presented with options based on their previous browsing history. In addition, the portal can be integrated with CRM software as well as the agent’s calendar for a truly seamless customer service.
- Healthcare providers have used portals to interact and connect with patients. The ability to quickly and easily arrange appointments, request repeat prescriptions, update personal information, access knowledge resources around conditions, treatments and general health advice makes life easier for patients and healthcare providers alike.
How To Set Up An Intranet Site
The first thing to consider is that much like your company’s internet website, the intranet will need a server. There are two main options available:
- Use a server connected to your company network. You’ll need to install intranet software onto your server.
- Use a cloud-based hosting service. You pay a hosting company to host the intranet for you.
Let’s examine each option in detail.
Company Network Server Intranet Option
The decision to opt for a company network server may well be influenced by the size of the organization and the available IT resources. Larger companies often already have a server whereas for smaller organizations it may be necessary to purchase one and so that cost will need to be factored into your budget.
To set up the intranet you first need to install intranet software onto your server that will enable you to generate the pages and insert the content. There is a whole range of options out there and which one you choose will be influenced by its ease of use, functionality and adaptability. Some of the off-the-shelf type packages, however, can still require a certain amount of technical knowledge.
Another important point to note here is that often the software available on the market has not been specifically developed with an intranet in mind. For example, some companies have used WordPress to develop an intranet; however, although capable of creating a perfectly acceptable intranet, WordPress was actually developed as a blogging or website creation tool. It doesn’t necessarily, therefore, have all the functionality and ease of use, say, dedicated cloud intranet software has.
Another popular software choice is SharePoint. Developed by Microsoft, SharePoint can seem like a good choice for an intranet particularly if your company already uses Office 365. SharePoint is, however quite complex to set up and is quite often just used as a document management or storage solution. Although it can also be used to set up an intranet, it won’t tick all the boxes in quite the same way as business user focused intranet software will.
Some companies use a consultant or get their existing web developer to create the company intranet. These are both good options for those that lack technical savviness, but they will increase your costs.
The main disadvantage of the network server option is that you are responsible for everything. From managing the intranet server, installing updates and backing up data to issues of security and virus protection – you will have to handle all the management and maintenance. In addition, intranet servers take up a lot of valuable physical space and so they are not always a feasible or desirable option. Office space is, after all, an expensive commodity.
Cloud-Hosted Intranet Option
Under this option, you pay an online hosting service to host your intranet site. Once again there are a number of providers out there including MyHub. With a cloud-based hosting option you simply log on and create the pages and content. Most providers utilize pre-built intranet templates that you can easily follow and adapt to meet your organization’s requirements. In addition, the intranet can be customized to suit the structure of your business and your company logo, style and colors.
The biggest advantage with online hosting is that there is no software to install or server to maintain. In fact, hosted intranet solutions are usually super easy and quick to set up and require little, if any, technical know-how. What’s more, the hosting service is also responsible for all technical issues, maintenance, updates, backups and security. Most hosted solutions will also provide ongoing help and support to intranet administrators.
Furthermore, intranet hosting services are usually charged on a monthly basis and so the costs are fixed. In the case of MyHub, for a fixed monthly fee, companies can enjoy unlimited numbers of users and unlimited data storage. This makes the cloud option very cost-effective and it also provides that all important cost certainty that is critical to businesses, particularly small enterprises and start-ups.
Another great advantage of cloud-based intranets is that they can be accessed by staff anytime and anywhere on a tablet, smartphone or computer with internet access. Many businesses no longer operate the traditional desk-bound, 9 to 5 model of working. Increasingly we are seeing companies offering more flexibility as well as remote working. In this context, online intranets are a great advantage and help to facilitate more flexible working. So, when developing your intranet, it’s important to ensure the site is mobile friendly and optimized for the smaller screens of smartphones and tablets.
Custom-Build Intranet Option
There is one final option that we need to mention and that is the custom build. Some larger companies, particularly those with a strong internal IT resource, have opted for an entirely bespoke intranet built from scratch. The driving force is usually the desire to create an intranet focussed on addressing the specific needs of the business. Another attractive factor for many companies is that they retain complete control over functionality, updates and revisions rather than delegating this to an external provider.
There are, however, a number of disadvantages not least of which are the time and resources involved in developing a custom-built intranet. In fact, the whole process from start to finish can easily take several months and many thousands of dollars.
What About Intranet Content?
Having considered the why and the how, let’s turn our attention to the what: what content should be included in an intranet?
Given that the whole point of an intranet is to make the working lives of your staff easier, the best starting point for addressing this is employees themselves. Consider setting up a project team with representation across the whole organization to determine what information it is that staff need to have at their fingertips. It’s worthwhile investing the time and effort in this stage so that you get it right. There’s no point in having a flash intranet website if staff don’t use it because it doesn’t have that critical corporate information.
It’s likely though that your intranet will include some, if not all, of the following elements:
- email accounts
- document management systems
- corporate calendars and meeting booking systems
- knowledge management
- shared project spaces to facilitate joint working and collaboration across teams
- task and project management
- communication tools such as blogs, discussion forums and webinars
- automated business processes such as booking annual leave or ordering supplies.
Draw up a map of the sequence of pages on your intranet. This will give you a good feel for the overall flow and sequencing of information and will also help you develop a site menu.
Be mindful though of information overload. It is tempting to put every piece of company information on the intranet. But if it’s not relevant or staff can’t find it easily then they will simply stop using the intranet altogether. It’s a tricky but very important balancing act.
In addition, when developing content try to make it as engaging as possible. Company safety and health information for example, although very important, can be a pretty dry topic. Try to enliven it by including lots of visual interest with diagrams and photos, online quizzes or surveys or even by injecting some humour. Be mindful of the different learning styles apparent in the modern workplace and incorporate a range of media that will satisfy all needs including video, podcasts, wikis and webinars. Be inventive. Using a few of these tricks will make staff more likely to engage with the intranet thereby increasing your staff adoption rates.
Finally, make sure that you refresh the content on a regular basis. Static images, unchanging text and worse still outdated information is quite simply dull and boring for users. So, on a regular basis make sure that you update the images, revise the content and get rid of anything that’s no longer relevant or up to date.
Intranet Design Issues
Intranet design issues is an involved subject that warrants its own dedicated post. Here we touch on some of the key principles to consider and we invite you to check out the Complete Intranet Design Guide for more detailed information.
The main point to get across when it comes to design is the simpler the better. Clean, uncluttered pages with plenty of white space is the way to go rather than some flash, all singing and all dancing intranet that is just way too much. For example, that purple color that looks so vibrant and eye-catching in your company logo can soon become annoying and overbearing when used as the backdrop for every page on your intranet. The most successful intranets have opted for a minimalist look and present information in bite-sized, easily digested chunks with the option to click for more detail.
An often overlooked but significant consideration when planning your intranet is security. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because your intranet is a private communications network it’s somehow immune from external security threats. Cybercrime continues to be a major issue. Whether it’s phishing, hacking, viruses or ransomware, the ever-changing methods deployed by hackers make it a full-time job keeping on top of it all. And yet you need to ensure that all your sensitive company data and the personal details of staff and customers are as secure as possible.
However, with a company network server intranet and the custom-build option, the responsibility for security rests firmly with you. So you will need to develop knowledge and expertise in firewalls, encryption technology, virus protection and so on. What’s more, the threat from cybercrime is constantly evolving, which means that you will need to keep your knowledge updated.
If that sounds like a daunting task, then the cloud-hosted intranet option may be a better fit. Under this option, the cloud provider retains responsibility for intranet security. It’s down to the provider to make sure that the very latest security features are in place to safeguard your intranet. It’s in the interests of the cloud provider to be up to date on the latest techniques – after all, their livelihoods depend on it.
Before you go live with your intranet, it’s a good idea to pilot the most easily published material as a trial run. Any online intranet provider will be happy to give you a demonstration or free trial so that you can fine-tune the product. A webinar or shared-screen guided tour is a great way to assess whether the software is a good match for your office intranet requirements. There is, however, no substitute to actually playing around with the software yourself.
If you have gone down the route of a company intranet server option then testing the intranet site for functionality and user-friendliness is worthwhile. You can then use the feedback to tweak the design and content as necessary before it goes live to all staff.
Other issues that piloting can help you address include site permissions and access rights. Not all staff will need to access all parts of the intranet. It will be necessary to maintain the confidentiality of some information by limiting access to those staff that really need it.
However, with a cloud option, all of this pre-testing and piloting will have already been completed by the provider. In fact, the offering from a cloud provider will be constantly tweaked and refined in response to the real experiences of a whole host of businesses that are using the intranet website day in and day out.
Ask For Help!
Hopefully, we’ve now shown you that setting up an intranet may not be the technical minefield you first thought it was. In fact, with a cloud-hosted intranet, it’s possible to have a professional-looking and fully functioning site up and running in a very short space of time. Contact us at MyHub for a free demo or 14-day trial and see your business start to enjoy the great benefits an intranet has to offer.
We’ve only been able to scratch the surface in this post. The MyHub blog includes a host of extra resources and further reading on a wide variety of topics. Whether it’s additional advice on how to deploy an intranet, or specialist guidelines on generating engaging content or tips on intranet design, our blog will educate, inspire and entertain. Here’s a selection of what’s on offer: